Being laid off used to be taboo. But not anymore. And most of us have thought through some sort of plan for if it happens to us. Gone are the days when people pretend this is not happening.
One of the things my ex-husband and I did well, as did our peers, was learn to tag-team in the layoff department. We both got laid off pretty much all the time throughout the 90s. And somehow, we got a sort of routine, and it became a normal way of life.
Today there is a generation of us in the workforce, totally familiar with layoffs, and totally unfamiliar with the idea that a job is secure. Ever. The good news about this is that there is not a huge difference between someone laid off and someone not laid off in that all of us feel vulnerable and scared.
Which means the etiquette is different than it used to be for talking to someone who's been laid off.
1. Don’t ask “how’s the job hunt?”
Do you know how many times a day someone hears this if he is unemployed? Ten. And even if it’s not ten really, it’s ten in his head. He asks himself that, and he imagines other people asking that, and he stresses about the answer. Because the job hunt doesn’t change much from day to day, but it’s demoralizing to report that.
So trust that someone who is laid off who has something great to report will volunteer it without you asking.
2. Ask about extracurriculars.
At this point, we have a generation that is accustomed to changing jobs often and thinking in terms of the in-between time with jobs. In between jobs is the best time for real vacations and often the best time for gaining deep knowledge of something totally new. This trend is becoming more pronounced during the current downturn. People are focusing on hobbies, kids, and their health — all interesting topics to talk about.
Those of you who are employed might find a little inspiration here. We all know that it doesn’t make sense to only do this stuff during the in-between time. So find out what changes your unemployed friends made to refocus themselves, and see if you can do it now. Before you get laid off.
3. Ask about health insurance.
There needs to be more collective knowledge on how to deal with health insurance during stints of unemployment. For most people, COBRA is about as cost-effective as a penthouse in New York City. So ask about how people are solving the insurance problem because the more we share information, the smarter we are at solving the problem when it hits us.
(What I learned from my last conversation: Move to Massachusetts. Everyone is covered there. )
4. Talk about industry news.
One of the hardest things about being laid off is keeping up in one’s industry. If you’re at the office each day, you keep up, sort of, through osmosis. But if you are not working in your field, you have to try a lot harder to keep up. Just hearing it first hand from someone who's still employed is helpful.
So tell the person what you’re working on. Trends you’re hearing about. Personnel shifts you’ve seen. Also, gossip counts as news. Workplace gossip is a positive way to bond. The laid-off worker is cut out of this positive gossip loop, unless you supply some. So forget what your mom told you about gossip being bad karma. In this case, gossip equals good karma.
5. Offer up one good contact.
You do not need to pretend that connecting in LinkedIn is going to help this person. I mean, they should have been building their network long before the layoff loomed. But you could offer up one person you know well who could talk with the person laid off.
The truth is that we all know someone who is out of work. And we all know that the next person could be us. Anyone who is feeling smug about having a job has no grip on reality. Sure, some of it is your own doing, your own talent. But some of it is luck. Anyone could be laid off at any time.
This is why almost anyone you ask will help a friend who is laid off. Once. Giving five minutes of help is a reasonable request. So you can make it for a friend. If the friend is not smart enough to turn that five minutes into something bigger, that is not your problem.
6. Acknowledge trouble with the significant other.
More men are getting laid off than women, which puts women in a bad spot because most women choose a husband thinking he’ll earn more than she will (yes, even smarty-pants Stanford women). It used to be that we could not openly discuss the testosterone hit that comes with being laid off. But today it’s fair game, and even compassionate to acknowledge.
Not that women are picking up all the slack. They’re not. Some are in support groups to cope with their boyfriends losing their seven-figure bonuses. Other women lost their jobs right along side their partner.
But the important thing here is that men and women are talking about the relationship dynamic that goes along with a layoff, so you should tread down this conversational path as well.
7. Don’t be shy about gratitude
Tell a co-worker who's been laid off that you miss him or her. And what you miss. It’s hard to keep up morale when you’re looking for a job. And so often we forget what we are talented at because rejection makes us feel totally un-talented.
The act of telling someone what you miss about them reminds them that they are valuable in the workplace. And it also gives you a little boost, because practicing gratitude increases your happiness by 25%. In fact, being grateful for what you have makes you happier than any job could, which is something you can remember when you’re the one who is laid off.